“Years Don’t Wait for Them” Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic

Publication Year:
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

In this in-depth report, Human Rights Watch explores the implications of COVID-19 on the educational future of children living in areas with little Internet access and technological resources. The report concludes by offering a set of recommendations for governments and members of civil society to implement to help reconcile the growing gaps in educational achievement.  


Decades of slow but steady progress in educating more children around the world abruptly ended in 2020. By April, an unprecedented 1.4 billion students were shut out of their pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools in more than 190 countries, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. As the pandemic persisted, schools in some countries or jurisdictions reopened for in-person teaching, or opened for some students, while elsewhere schools have remained closed ever since with learning to greater or lesser extent taking place online or otherwise remotely. In some places, there have been waves of schools opening only to close again. An estimated 90 percent of the world’s school-aged children have had their education disrupted by the pandemic.

Children, who tend to escape the more severe symptoms of Covid-19, nevertheless had to sacrifice the education to which they are entitled, and accept restrictions that often harmed their friendships and mental health, as part of public efforts to help protect the health and save lives of their families, friends, teachers, and those in their communities.

Céleste A., a 15-year-old girl living in the Central African Republic, told Human Rights Watch how the closure of her school affected her: “It doesn’t do me any good to not go to school. I feel like something in me is missing.” In Mexico, 15-year-old Sonia M. said: “At first I thought it was cool! But later I realized that I now want to go back to school.” And Jae-kuk H., a 14-year-old boy in South Korea, put it simply: “I feel like the earth has just stopped.”

As the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines brings hope of an eventual end to pandemic-related school closures, the aspiration that things merely “return to how they were before” is insufficient. As a primary school teacher in an under-resourced neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, said: “The social issue is the real pandemic: inequality.” 

This massive disruption to children’s education has highlighted the need for governments to devote serious attention and resources to ameliorate, mitigate, and correct the long-standing inequalities in education systems that have been highlighted and exacerbated during the pandemic. Governments should reverse policies that generate those inequalities, which include persistent under-investment in public education.

Governments’ goal should not merely be the return to school of all students whose education the pandemic disrupted. They should also ensure that those who were not able to learn at the same pace as their peers during the pandemic catch-up on what they missed. Moreover, governments should extend education to the children persistently excluded from schooling even before the crisis.

All children have a right to education—a right that so many children have now been unable to fully enjoy. This was often the consequence of legitimate efforts aimed at protecting public health during this pandemic, but Human Rights Watch also identified mismanaged, ill-informed, under-resourced, and even discriminatory government responses, built upon structurally unsound and unequal education systems. In response, all governments should now rise to the challenge and build better education systems that create opportunities for all children.

This report is based on over 470 interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch between April 2020 and April 2021, with students, parents, and teachers in 60 countries. This report illustrates trends and patterns common across countries, but due to the research methodology does not make generalized findings about how the pandemic affected education and other children’s rights in individual countries.

Children told Human Rights Watch of the extraordinary lengths they went to—supported by parents and teachers—in order to continue to study and learn. For example, 17-year-old Mia Sulastri who lives on the island of Borneo in Indonesia, travelled 24 kilometers by motorbike, four times a week, to find a strong enough phone signal to receive WhatsApp messages from her teachers, and email back her assignments.

Some governments organized classes to be delivered over radio and television. Many teachers deployed an array of distance learning techniques to try to further their students’ education: work packets distributed by hand, online teaching, and sending assignments by email and online messaging services. In some cases, teachers paid for materials, equipment, and internet to ensure children had what they needed to study. Children “want to learn,” a primary school teacher in the United States told Human Rights Watch. “They truly are these resilient little beings that can do it when they’re given the opportunity, tools, and access.”

But many children were not given the opportunity, tools, or access needed to keep on learning during the pandemic. As a result, school closures did not affect all children equally. Throughout this pandemic, students, parents, and teachers have been frustrated by the direct impact of governments’ long-term lack of commitment to remedying discrimination and inequalities in their education systems, and their failure to ensure basic government services, such as water and toilets at schools, and affordable, reliable electricity in homes. Lack of access to affordable, reliable internet connection was another key problem. In Lebanon, where the government has long failed to reform its dilapidated electricity sector, government provided electricity is rationed and those who cannot afford a private generator are left without power. Fourteen-year-old Sara W. told Human Rights Watch: “My English teacher canceled class almost every time because she didn’t have electricity.”

The damage that children are experiencing to their education is built on pre-existing issues: almost one in five children were out of school even before Covid-19 began to spread, according to UN data. Governments in most countries already had solid evidence on which groups of their children are most at risk of dropping out of school or being excluded from school. They knew who would be most affected by school closures. Yet children from such groups tended to be the most excluded from quality education during the pandemic as well. “A lot of these problems that we are facing with distance learning are problems that we deal with every day in the classroom: lack of internet at home, lack of resources, lack of parent support at home, chaos at home, lack of a schedule at home, uncertainty around food, uncertainty around housing,” a middle school teacher in rural California, in the United States told Human Rights Watch. “These aren’t new problems. They just became very, very apparent when all of a sudden, teachers have a front row seat to see it in these children’s homes through Zoom or the fact that they were not at school.”

For example, in some countries, girls faced multiple forms of discrimination in accessing education before the Covid-19 pandemic, and then faced additional discriminatory barriers to continuing formal education from a distance. Girls were far more likely to be expected to take on greater housework burdens, were less likely to have access to the internet than boys, and due to societal or familial restraints sometimes faced greater constraints on their interactions with others. Girls who are out of school are also at a greater risk than out-of-school boys of facing abuses such as child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence. Taisha S., a 16-year-old student in Garissa, Kenya, said that when her school offered no guidance on how to study during school closures, she tried to get in touch with one teacher. “He said he would not be able to go to anyone’s home, but they could come to his house. As girls we feared going to his house, but I hear the boys have been going.” She said she sometimes watched classes on television, but she was not able to attend all of them because of her chores at home, as she lives with two grandmothers who rely on her care. “It takes up a significant portion of my day attending to them. My chores have increased of course because schools have closed.”

In many countries, the heavy reliance on online learning and connectivity technologies to deliver education exacerbated learning inequalities because many governments did not have the policies, resources, or infrastructure to roll out online learning in a fully inclusive manner. A mother in Armenia said of her grade-7 son, who has a hearing disability and classes on Zoom, which he attends using a smartphone: “It is very hard for him to see sign language via phone… Imagine watching it on the phone…and imagine also the phone screen divided into seven.” In Kazakhstan, 16-year-old Serik R. said his school wanted to hold classes on Zoom, but the internet was not capable of supporting it: “There were connection glitches and internet malfunctions.”

Children from low-income families were more likely to be excluded from online distance learning because of an inability to afford sufficient internet or devices. A mother in Lagos, Nigeria, who lost her income after the university where she cleaned shut down due to the pandemic, said she could not afford online studies for two of her children. “Their teacher called me to tell me to buy a big phone [smartphone] for online teaching... I don’t have money to feed my family and I am struggling to make ends meet, how can I afford a phone and internet?” A father who provides pest control services in Mumbai, India, and has two children said: “We have one computer in the family. Both my wife and I are working from home, so we need it. Now both children have classes, so they need to be on the computer. Two children with classes at the same time, so actually we need two computers. We are taking salary cuts, how can we afford to buy another laptop? So, one child is missing class.”

Historically under-resourced schools particularly struggled to reach their students across digital divides, which in turn risked further undermining student groups that already faced greater obstacles to learning. A second-grade teacher at a school near Potsdam, Germany, described her school: “The announcement came that Skype would be installed on the school computers, so teachers could use Skype to keep in touch with students and parents… It turned out that the school computers did not have a camera, so the topic was closed… The conditions for teachers to work online or computer based are not given, which limits teachers’ ability to provide education to students during school closures.” In contrast, well-resourced schools that had invested in technology and digital literacy for their teachers before the pandemic did far better. For example, a teacher at a private secondary school in São Paulo, Brazil, which he described as “extremely privileged,” said that he had already been teaching using a digital platform for five years: “So I get to teach the same way I was teaching before… In my world, things are pretty easy.”

Although school closures were intended to be temporary, for far too many students, this marked the end of their education. Children began working, got married, assumed new family obligations, became disillusioned with education or felt they could not catch up, or simply aged-out of free or compulsory education as guaranteed under their country’s laws. In Nepal, 14-year-old Amir started working when his school shut and his family ran out of food. “For a while I thought that I would go back when the school reopens, but I don’t think that anymore,” he said. “I enjoy driving and making money so what will I do going back to school now? Even if I do go back to school, it won’t be for long.”

Even for the students who have returned, or who will return, to their classrooms, the evidence suggests that for years to come they will continue to feel the consequences of lost learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Governments need hastily to get back on track with the commitments they made in 2015 through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to guarantee all children receive an inclusive quality primary and secondary education by 2030. To do so, they will have to do intensive outreach to ensure that children most at-risk of dropping out or facing barriers return to school. This should include pregnant girls, and parenting or married children, most of whom are girls; children living in, or near, poverty, whose families cannot afford tuition or indirect expenses; children sent to work as families sank deep into poverty, leaving them unable to pay school costs; children with disabilities or underlying health conditions; and children who simply fear they have fallen too far behind academically. These children should feature prominently in governments’ back-to-school recovery plans and budgets.

Governments and schools should analyze who left school and who came back and ensure back-to-school programs seek out all of those who dropped out, including by disbursing financial and social benefits. Outreach for back-to-school campaigns should be broad, and welcome children and youth who were already out of education when the pandemic closed schools.

Education should be at the core of all governments’ recovery plans: governments should both address the impact of the pandemic on children’s education and pre-existing problems. In light of profound financial pressures on national economies from the pandemic, governments should protect and prioritize funding for public education in general and reconsider the low priority—and chronic underfunding—so long given to providing education under emergency conditions.

Removing the barriers to children’s right to education highlighted during the pandemic will not be easy. But all governments, and the donors and international actors supporting them, should be firm in their commitments that moving forward, their focus will be on investing and adequately distributing greater resources to strengthen public inclusive education systems, swiftly removing discriminatory policies and practices, and adopting plans to redress the right to education for millions of students.

In the first chapter, this report documents how millions of children’s educational paths have been disrupted and devastated during the pandemic. In some countries, schools provided no alternative education during pandemic-related closures. Yet in almost every country, even where alternative education opportunities were theoretically available, too many students were unable to access them or benefit from them.

Barriers to distance learning tended to be particularly high for students from groups already facing discrimination and exclusion from education even before the pandemic, including: children living in or near poverty; children with disabilities; children who are ethnic and racial minorities in the countries where they live; girls, especially in countries with gender inequalities in school enrollments and achievements; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children; children living in rural areas; children living in areas affected by armed conflict; and displaced, refugee, migrant, and asylum-seeking children. Children who belong to more than one of these groups face intersecting forms of discrimination which compounds the barriers they face in accessing education.

In countries where free primary and secondary education is not guaranteed for all, but only to children of certain ages, many children aged-out of their entitlements during the pandemic without receiving the full quality education to which they are entitled. Similarly, in countries where only six years or fewer of education are compulsory under the law, children have aged-out of the most basic of educational requirements, without having received the benefits.

This report’s second chapter focuses on what is often referred to as “digital divides.” After schools closed, hundreds of millions of students experienced a dramatic shift to distance learning, with physical classrooms replaced by radios, televisions, cellphones, and computers. This resulted in an overwhelming need for affordable, reliable connectivity; adequate devices and software, accessible for children with different types of disabilities; and digital literacy training to use these technologies safely and confidently. However, the unprecedented demand exacerbated divisions between children with access to these technologies and the opportunities they can provide, and those without. Children who were the least likely to have access―those from low-income families, marginalized communities, living in rural areas, with disabilities, or due to their gender―were more likely to be shut out of learning during this time, further widening the deep educational inequalities they already faced.

Chapter three documents how even students who could access alternative education while their schools were closed frequently experienced a greatly diminished quality of education, such as fewer hours of instruction, and fewer subjects. Students also had fewer, and sometimes no, interactions and informal learning experiences with teachers and peers. Learning options for preschool early learners were also often overlooked.

Chapter four discusses the harms that children and their education faced during pandemic-related school closures. Many children learned and achieved less than they would in a classroom—indeed, many regressed educationally. Some students dropped out entirely. Many children also experienced psychosocial and emotional issues during the pandemic, and many felt socially isolated, stressed, and depressed. Students also lost ancillary social protections that are often provided through schools, such as free meals, or therapy and specialist services.

Nonetheless, our research found that some children felt they learned more from distance learning than they would have in school—a finding that points to a need for schools to explore whether they are doing what they can to accommodate such students’ needs in a classroom setting.

The fifth chapter examines some of the pressures on teachers and parents from pandemic-related school closures.

Finally, chapter six outlines the international human rights legal standards that guarantee all children a right to education, and how this must be balanced against children’s—and everyone’s—right to life and health during a pandemic. It also explains that international human rights law contains a strong presumption against governments taking retrogressive measures in the field of education, even during times of possible economic recession in the years following the pandemic. If retrogressive measures are introduced, governments need to demonstrate that it is only after the most careful consideration of all alternatives and that they are duly justified in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources.

The cost of failure is high. Without quality education, children do not gain the skills they need to fully participate in society and exercise their rights. When children are not in school, societies lose the protective benefits that quality education brings: lost education opportunities lower economic prospects later in life and children become more vulnerable to exploitation, including child labor, child marriage, sexual violence, trafficking, and recruitment into armed groups and forces. Governments will also need to divert resources to tackle the consequences of failing to educate all children.

“It does not make me happy that my children are no longer going to school,” a mother in the Democratic Republic of Congo told Human Rights Watch in June 2020. “Years don’t wait for them. They have already lost a lot,” she said, before asking: “What will become of our uneducated children?”


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